67 Richmond Street East
Dinner for two with all taxes and tip plus beer or wine: $110
The Harlem Shuffle – an R&B song originally written and recorded by the duo Bob & Earl in 1963, named after a line dance step that is an homage to the dance clubs that existed during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. More recently, the rearranging of plates on a table at Harlem Restaurant when it becomes obvious that too many side dishes have been ordered.
The term “authentic” gets bandied around a lot these days when it comes to food, with most people not really knowing what the authentic dish should taste like in the first place. So when a commenter on a food-related board dissed the food at Harlem for not being “authentic soul food”, I found myself shaking my head.
Harlem soul food is so utterly and totally a product of history. In the early 1900’s, African-Americans increasingly migrated north in search of a better standard of living than could be found in the south. They ended up in Harlem, formerly an upscale white neighbourhood, and formed a well-to-do middle class that included the nightclubs, jazz bars and speakeasies of the 1920s. Southern soul food, which was based on traditional west African dishes with French, Spanish and Native influences, came with them, but like so many cuisines that are ingredient-based, the dishes changed and morphed from the earthy “make-do” dishes that used gizzards, livers and chitlins to sophisticated versions of those same foods – less spicy, with more thought to presentation, but with the same basic components. The hearty stick-to-your-ribs quality is what translated in the move from the southern states to Harlem, and what remains prevalent in soul food to this day.
Here in Toronto, owner and chef Carl Cassell has created a little bit of the Harlem Renaissance on Richmond Street. Although the space opened in March of 2007, it seems to have taken a while for foodies and reviewers to discover the place, with early accounts on local discussion boards indicating great food but a mostly empty room. The upstairs lounge space has been jumping since day one, however, and in the past few months, Harlem has become one of the hottest reservations in town.
The cozy restaurant is busy when we arrive, but our soft-spoken server is laid back and welcoming. Most hot ticket places seem more concerned with turning over the tables a couple of times on a Friday night, but no such pressure exists here.
We start with the hummus and avocado dip with Harlem crisps ($6) which turn out to be deep-fried wonton wrappers, and move on to the bourbon baby back ribs appetizer ($9.95), which is a massive serving of tender pork ribs slathered in a not-too-sweet bourbon-laced sauce, accompanied by a sweet and tangy coleslaw. Across the way, we watch with envy as another table receives the catfish Lafayette ($8.95), tender morsels of fish in a spicy sauce.
We’re not envious long. The jambalaya ($18.95) is full of shrimp, chorizo sausage, scallops and fat juicy mussels atop al dente rice studded with tomatoes and collard greens. We have collard greens ($5) again as one of the many sides we couldn’t resist, and they are presented with slivers of red pepper and onion atop a pool of fragrant broth. No sign of the traditional pork hocks, but this may be one of the modernizing touches used in the cuisine.
The fried chicken ($13.95) is the real reason we came and will be on the table every time we return. The chicken pieces are twice-fried and arrive looking too dark, but one bite reveals a crisp, slightly spicy batter, and moist tender meat inside. Drizzled with a chili-spiked honey, I could happily eat these forever if only my arteries would allow it.
Additional sides in the form of sweet orange candied yams ($5) and a warm spicy cornbread studded with corn kernels ($3.50) round out the dinner, with all portions so large that we take half of everything but the chicken home – that didn’t last the evening.
For dessert, we opt to share the brownie ($5) which comes with a mango sauce and chunks of fresh mango, and is, in a way, the only miss of the evening. While the portion is huge – seriously, it’s half a pan of brownies, easily – the cake is dense and slightly tough and way on the sweet side. It fares better the next day, when along with our leftovers, we nuke it for lunch, and the centre warms to a gooey delight.
People often ask me to tell them my favourite restaurant in the city, because they think as a food writer, I’ve got some stash of great places they don’t know about. Until now, I’ve been uncomfortable naming a favourite, but since our visit, I’ve been answering “Harlem” when that question is put before me. There’s a number of reasons for this choice, and the fantastic food and wonderfully professional but unobtrusive service definitely have an influence. But my love of the place also has a lot to do with atmosphere and history.
By recreating the 1920s Harlem renaissance through the combination of music, art and food, Cassell preserves a little piece of history (important at a time when many of the long-running soul food joints in Harlem, New York are shutting down) and allows us to experience it (almost) firsthand. Soul food is family food, and Cassell’s Harlem has the uncanny atmosphere of feeling like a family home where Mama is busy in the kitchen cooking up her specialties, and after dinner everyone will head off to a smoky speakeasy to listen to the wail of jazz musicians making history. Besides offering up fantastic food, Harlem takes its customers back in time, which is a treat no other restaurant offers.